As mobile and internet sports betting rolls out nationally, it provides a greater opportunity and convenience to bet on your favorite teams. But online sports betting also poses bigger risks to your mental health and bank account.
The Supreme Court struck down a federal ban on commercial sports betting in 2018, leading to it being legal in 32 states and D.C.
At the Maryland Center of Excellence on Problem Gambling, which I lead, I hear from many people struggling with gambling addiction.
One college student lost all his money, maxed out his credit card and went broke. He always thought he was going to win big. He kept telling himself he didn’t have a problem because he had not yet gone totally into debt, but he was close to financial devastation. He finally had to tell his parents what he had done.
Another gambler said that he had a big win early in his life and found that it made him think another big win was around the corner. He tried to chase his losses and vowed that if he ever broke even, he would quit. That day never came. At one point, he became suicidal and sought help through Gamblers Anonymous.
In the United States, 1 to 6 percent of adults have a gambling disorder, according to most studies. Popular forms of gambling include casino gambling, electronic gambling and slot machines, lottery tickets, horse races, dog races, bingo, private games, sports betting, fantasy sports and internet games.
Sports betting has grown in popularity and tends to attract a younger, primarily male demographic. Most states already have some form of legalized sports betting, and sportsbooks are moving quickly to make gambling accessible from your phone. In Maryland, sports betting went online last week. Sports betting is also moving right into stadiums. Maryland’s latest gambling expansion, for instance, allows for gambling terminals to be installed at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, M&T Bank Stadium and FedEx Field.
Is it possible to enjoy the excitement of wagering on your favorite World Cup match and avoid the pitfalls of gambling addiction? Watch for these signs that gambling is becoming a problem:
Are you preoccupied with gambling?
A man in his early 20s preoccupied with gambling contacted our center for help. Having graduated from college, he was supposed to be searching for a job. Instead, he was preoccupied with placing new wagers and monitoring games.
If you are thinking about gambling all day and can’t wait to place bets online, you are becoming preoccupied with gambling. Constantly planning gambling activities and being focused on getting more money to gamble are signs that gambling is having a negative impact on your daily life.
Do you have gambling withdrawal symptoms?
Just like people with chemical substance addictions, those suffering from a gambling disorder can go through serious withdrawal. A young sports gambler in recovery was trying to abstain from gambling. But with his friends betting on sporting events, it was making him anxious and irritable.
Do you experience withdrawal when you stop gambling? Withdrawal symptoms can create both emotional symptoms such as irritability and depression and physical symptoms such as sweating, headaches, racing heart and muscle tension.
Are you hiding your gambling activity?
A man in his 30s had lost all his savings and was continually trying to borrow money. His lies and concealment of his gambling activity had destroyed many of his relationships with family and friends. If you have a gambling problem, you may try to conceal your gambling by hiding receipts or bank statements. You may lie about where you are going to avoid being questioned or accused of gambling.
If you are struggling with a gambling addiction, the key is to know that help is out there and easily accessible at a moment’s notice.
How to find counseling and treatment for gambling addiction
Some states provide no-cost counseling and treatment. You can call the National Helpline for advice and support: 1-800-522-4700. You also can go online to the National Council on Problem Gambling. In Maryland, the Helpline [1-800-GAMBLER] provides easy access to peer recovery support specialists and treatment providers. Text and chat services are also available. Peers are people with experience with gambling addiction who can support those struggling with the problem to get the help they need. Help is available through the Helpline 24/7.
If connecting with help is difficult, here are some strategies to keep yourself safe:
Visualize the negative impact of gambling. Imagine what might happen if you give in to gambling. Think about how you’ll feel after you lose all your money and have disappointed yourself and those you care about. It takes tremendous strength and courage to own up to this and break the habit and rebuild your life.
Connect with people. When a gambling craving strikes, consider calling or meeting a trusted family member or friend or going to a Gamblers Anonymous meeting to avoid isolation. This can help you deal with your emotions and get help from others.
Talk about it. You can fight the urge to gamble by telling yourself that you’ll wait five minutes, 15 minutes or an hour, which will help to slow down the urge to gamble and make it easier to resist. Mindfulness and imaginal desensitization, a technique that uses images to help people with specific types of disorders with impulse control elements, are key to decreasing maladaptive coping strategies such as avoidance, wishful thinking, social withdrawal and self-criticism. For instance, instead of imagining placing another bet on the game, you would visualize the time you will be spending with family.
Make an alternative plan. Gambling might be a way to self-soothe unpleasant emotions, unwind or socialize. But there are healthier and more effective ways of managing your moods and relieving boredom. Try another activity such as watching a movie or engaging in relaxation exercises to avoid the craving to gamble.
Mary Drexler, MSW, is the director of the Maryland Center of Excellence on Problem Gambling, a program of the University of Maryland School of Medicine. The center promotes healthy and informed choices regarding gambling and problem gambling.
We welcome your comments on this column at OnYourMind@washpost.com.
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